Updated 27 March 2014

Too fat to fly

If you're too big to fit into an aeroplane seat, should you be allowed two for the price of one?


If you're too big to fit into an airline seat, should you be allowed two for the price of one?

It’s an all-too familiar scenario played out every time you get onto a commercial aircraft:

As you squeeze down the aisle towards 28B, you pray that 28A or C will not be occupied by one of the stock characters who seem to be on every flight (and who bring out your misanthropic tendencies): the mum and fretful baby, the compulsive conversationalist, the cougher, the passenger with personal hygiene issues.

And above all, the fat guy spilling over his armrest into your already cramped personal space.

One passenger, one ticket
A ruling passed by the Canadian Transportation Agency in 2008 states that if clinical obesity makes it impossible for you to fit into a standard-sized airline seat, you will now have the right to two seats – but you'll still only have to pay for one ticket.

The landmark decision, which applies to Canadian domestic flights, was hailed by many as a triumph in the struggle to have obesity recognised as a genuine disability, requiring that transport companies cater for these customers’ special needs.

Too fat, too bad: pay up, say critics
The Canadian ruling applies not only to the clinically obese, but to disabled people in general who might need another seat for their carers to accompany them on a flight.

However, criticism of the ruling continues to be levelled primarily at the obese. Most other airlines still do not offer two seats for the price of one: some airlines require very obese passengers (often the criterion is those who cannot fit in a seat without raising the arm rests) to pay for two seats, while others strongly recommend it.

Critics of two-seats-for-the-cost-of-one say it may well mean that slimmer passengers will have to foot the bill as airlines raise the price of airfares to cover the cost of seats "lost" to larger passengers.

The argument is based on the following still common viewpoint: others should not have to pay for obese people's greed and lack of impulse control over food. If you're too fat for a normal-sized seat, it’s your own fault and you should pay for the extra space – or go business class.

Another less blatantly prejudiced and rather more compelling argument is that if obese people get such “special treatment” from airlines, then why shouldn’t others whose body type also doesn’t conform to average: very tall people, for example?

But medical research into obesity increasingly shows that such views, namely that obesity is not a true disease and that it is the sufferer’s fault, are outdated and simplistic.

Obese not just "naughty"
The new picture that is emerging is that obesity is a highly complex problem, involving multiple causative factors.

Dr Ingrid van Heerden, Health24's DietDoc, concurs: "We don't fully understand the mechanism of obesity yet.

"But there are definitely obese people who simply don't respond to standard methods of weight loss; it's not just that they've ‘been naughty over Christmas’ and lack willpower."

For some clinically obese people, says Van Heerden, the only recourse is to take the serious, and potentially very dangerous step of bariatric surgery – a decision patients make because they otherwise risk death from their condition, and because it compromises their lives in such fundamental ways.

For a seriously obese person, daily existence is a struggle, let alone the rigours of travel. Air travel for someone with this illness is risky, physically taxing and emotionally fraught: every doorway, turnstile, narrow aisle and tiny airline toilet is an obstacle to be negotiated – and all under the curious, and frequently disapproving, stares of fellow-passengers.

The small comfort of knowing that you will at least not have to worry about fitting into your seat can hardly be considered a luxury.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24, updated July 2011

Read more:
Am I obese?
Beat those economy-class blues

Obese have right to 2 airline seats - Canada court. Reuters, 20 November 2008


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